If you want to imagine the process of laying out an RPG, imagine hitting yourself in the nutsack (if you possess one) with a ball-peen hammer for several hours until you’re numb to the pain, then coming back to do it again six months later just as everything’s healed because you love it when your testicles swell to the size of cricket balls.1

Ed Healy mentioned on Twitter this morning that 80% of Americans will have smartphones by the end of 20132. In his own inimitable style, he also asked of those of us who create games: “Will you create content for them?”3

This sparked off some discussion between myself, Ed, and David A. Hill Jr. on the best way to cater RPG books to smartphones. Naturally, it happened on Twitter, which is a horrible place to have a discussion involving long, thought-out points, so I’m dragging my side of it to my blog.

The smartass answer4 to Ed’s question is that people with smartphones can read books just the same as people without them. That’s avoiding the issue. If you’ve got a smart device, you want to use it for things. Why wouldn’t you want to use it when gaming?

As I see it, we-as-game-publishers have a few avenues we can explore:

  1. Publish in PDF
  2. Publish in ePub
  3. Publish as an app
  4. Publish as a web app

I should point out that these are just the first four things that sprang to mind, other options exist that I’d quite like to hear about.

Publish in PDF

PDF has become the default standard of the electronic-format roleplaying game. In effect, it’s a way of creating a fixed-layout page so that the electronic artefact can match up precisely with a printed artefact. Even though the printed RPG book is quickly becoming a luxury item,5 we’re still tied to a strict electronic representation of those books as our default file format.

Only problem is, PDFs are a horrible format for representing actual electronic documents. Making a usable Table of Contents, list of bookmarks, and hyperlinks is beyond the capabilities of the basic software. Most RPG books still go for the 11″x8.5″ format that people recognise as a gaming book. Thing is, people use font sizes that look good on paper, which end up far too small to read on many screens.6

Yes, we can zoom in. Thing is, if the reader has to zoom in then one has to overload scrolling to not just move within the document but to move the viewport around the page. Which is a really hard problem. This is doubly a pain in the genitals if the PDF has columns—a good idea in print, but a real headache on screen as it encourages yet more fucking scrolling.

An 8.5″x11″ PDF also doesn’t work for pretty much any mobile device. It’s readable on the iPad with its 4:3 screen if one has perfect eyesight or decent glasses or doesn’t mind scrolling like a bastard, but nothing else does.

One fairly recent trend is to put out books in 6″x9″ format, often single-column and sometimes landscape format. All these things help with screen-reading: landscape is nicer to read than portrait, single-column avoids the scrolling issue on small displays or when zoomed, and the smaller page size fits better on many displays. A 6″x9″ book displays just fine on many of the 7″ tablets on the market7

Thing is, these PDFs do fuck-all for smartphone users because smartphone screens are small compared to just about any page of text

As an experiment, I put together a couple of PDFs of BLACK SEVEN earlier. One was sized to the screen of an iPhone 4, another for the HTC Wildfire. Body text was dropped to 5pt, pages sized precisely for the screen with tiny margins, everything tuned for a phone display

On a high-resolution device like more modern iPhones and the Galaxy Nexus, these mini-PDFs looked fine. On most phones8, the display doesn’t have enough pixels for the pages to be comfortable to read. Once the font’s increased to a comfortable size, tables and graphic elements become unreadable.

This is a natural consequence to using a format that tries to replicate “pages” of fixed text. After banging my head against the layout problem for a while, I realised9 that the problem was fundamental in static layout.

I have in the past argued against the use of PDF for gaming books. In trying to make them usable, I was hitting a whole bunch of problems that I’ve already called out as being pretty intractable.

Based on experimentation, PDFs just don’t work at the small screen-size available on most smartphones. High-end phones have the ppi to drive PDFs, but the majority of people don’t have high-ppi devices.

Smartphone-sized PDFs are thus a no-go.

Publish in ePub

Here, I can legitimately claim to be ahead of the game. Both BLACK SEVEN and Touched by Darkness come in ePub as well as PDF, which is still a rare thing for RPG publishers to do.

ePub has massive advantages over PDF: the text flow is dynamic, so the reader can control what size and orientation looks right. Reader software can allow the reader to change the font-face, colors, and size to find the perfect reading style for their device. Readers are freely available on anything with more computing power than a digital watch. ePub is a form of HTML and CSS, which means that formatting tricks are possible, in theory.

In practice, each reader has its own host of bugs. Many RPGs, especially small-press games, use layout and typography to make up for a relative lack of art, and that’s lost in ePub. In theory, the format allows for embedded fonts and CSS layout tricks. In practice, creating ePub files is a bit like writing a standards-compatbile website that looks identical in both Firefox, Internet Explorer 610, and Lynx.

Writing ePubs is possible, but the current suite of authoring software is shit. Calibre and Sigil both assume that one is intimately familiar with ePubs and create files that look great if one only uses Calibre or Sigil to read them. Pages will export ePub, but don’t expect embedded fonts, tables, or any bits of layout trickery to work. iBooks is a whole other pile of worms that doesn’t work in any other reader. Half the readers out there won’t even render a bastard table correctly. Forget typography or layout elements. If you want anything beyond basic Markdown, you’re buggered.

For smartphones, ePub is a fantastic format. For layout people—especially, like me, part-time layout people who are also writers, editors, developers, and have a day job—ePub is a total fucker to work with.11 But if you’re willing to fight it a bit to get the necessary information legible, then a publisher really should be including ePub. It’s just good manners to allow people to read your work on as many devices as possible.

ePub is a brilliant format for the reader—but the limtations of the format (no embedded fonts, no character sheets, very limited set of reliable layout elements) mean that publishers don’t want to release in ePub alone.

But if a publisher’s not at least releasing the text of their game as an ePub with a full-featured PDF or similar then they’re missing out on the gamers-with-smartphones sector.

Publish as an app

Publishing a game that’s a smartphone app is the sort of thing that seems like a really great idea. I’ve thought about it several times, from appified versions of rulebooks right the way to proper high-crunch games with player and GM modes that communicate and adjudicate a lot of the rules without the GM needing to intervene, thus opening rules-heavy games up to people who can’t normally be bothered with tracking lots of variables but want the verisimilitude that said tracking would provide.

Sorry, tangent. I’ve thought about this a lot.

Naturally, for a smartphone-using gamer, this is the sweet-spot. The game can go on sale through the various app stores, it’s optimized for the screen size and capabilities of the game, it can include things like a database of characters and a dice roller. The presentation of the rules and the like take what’s good about ePub and turn it up to eleven.

But.

App development isn’t the sort of skill that people just pick up. Expecting someone who already does everything as an indie publisher12 to take the time necessary to learn to write apps—not just once but twice—is unreasonable.

For most publishers, programming is a whole skillset that they’ve no idea about. Even for people like me, who can write code already, it still takes a couple of months to pick up something new at least. Then it’s up to writing, developing, and testing.

Once you get to the point of pressuring publishers to release a smartphone app, you’re raising the bar of entry to the publishing space to people who can a) write apps and b) write RPGs. And while I could inhabit that space if I had a couple of months off work, for people not coming from an IT-heavy background it’s not a sensible requirement.

Naturally, people who write apps will say “just hire an app developer”, which misses the main point of small publishers: we’re really fucking small. I was able to trade off my own time as a resource when publishing BLACK SEVEN. App developers are expensive, and most of us do not have the money.

The ideal way forwards would be for an enterprising person to publish an app-creator-kit, an equivalent to DTP software that instead created an app for both iOS and Android. While it’s a nice idea, I honestly don’t see it happening any time soon.

While game-as-app is the perfect artefact for smartphone users, it’s not a space that’s available to most small publishers. It’d be nice for that to change, but the change would have to be publisher driven or it’d cost people out of producing RPGs.

At present, it’s a luxury that most publishers cannot afford to produce.

Publish as a web app

A web app, leveraging HTML, CSS, and Javascript, is a handy way of creating something that’s significantly more feature-rich than an ePub file, because it’s able to use Javascript. It can also use things like bits of HTML5 to add yet more features.

While HTML, CSS, and Javascript require more skills than hitting “export to ePub”, they’re a mature skillset. Better, web apps can be made with intro-level software, creating apps that work in browsers, with tablets, and with smartphones without much knowledge of the underlying code. As with smartphone apps, web apps require a set of programming skills that most small publishers don’t have. Unlike smartphone apps, these skills aren’t as onerous to pick up.

The main problem for creating RPGs that work as web apps is of delivery. If you aim to get them out via the various platforms’ app stores, then you’ve got to code up a wrapper—though that wrapper’s going to be easier to write once and use for a range of games than if each were made as an app. Otherwise, you’re left with the problem of getting the files to a smartphone user.

Delivering the various messy bits of files that incorporate a web app directly to a phone or similar isn’t necessarily easy, especially with the way that some devices lock down browser access to the filesystem. A publisher may instead host the web app, but that opens a whole new can of worms around guarantees of access, and ensuring that unauthorised users can’t access the web app.

As you can probably tell, this is the space I’ve thought about least. It’s easier to do than to create an app, but harder than making PDFs or ePubs. The problem shifts from “can people who buy my game use this” to “how do I get this to people who have bought my game”.

Conclusions

To get people who came with tablets and smartphones at the table, the best thing to do at the moment is to make a 6″x9″ PDF and an ePub version of your books. While other options are there, they’re currently too high a hurdle to require from publishers.

I’ve played around with smartphone-sized PDFs and they’ve proved to be distinctly not worth it. I’m going to work on getting BLACK SEVEN available as a web app, and will report back.


  1. If you haven’t guessed, this is in my normal voice rather than the professional voice I normally use here. If swearing turns you off, leave now.
  2. Normally, I’d take umbrage with only focusing on a foreign country, but from my own unscientific polling, the USA is lagging behind the rest of the world in smartphone usage anyway, so fuck it, let’s use the USA figures as a baseline.
  3. Oh fuck, I’ve turned into one of those horrible people that blog about what happened on twitter. Kill me now.
  4. David came up with it rather than me, since I’m not a luddite.
  5. Which is a problem for the current LGS distribution model, which is outwith my scope at present. It’s also a problem for whiny fucks who refuse to buy games that don’t come in print, and yet somehow are able to connect to the internet, but hypocrisy knows no bounds.
  6. As a rough guide, if you’re using 8- or 9-point serif fonts, you need a display putting out at least 120 pixels per inch for it to be legible without zooming. The prevalence of widescreen displays at the behest of the movie and television industries has done a great deal to retard the utility of displays for reading, where 4:3 is a sensible aspect ratio.
  7. My reference device for these things is a rooted Nook Color, which displays 6″x9″ PDFs like a fucking charm.
  8. Of a sample size consisting of “people who answered me on twitter”.
  9. Pronounced “Tef told me, and was right”.
  10. Without hacks to normalise the box model.
  11. The pithy answer is “so hire a layout bod”. At this point I’ll note that small publishers can’t afford a layout bod. When I can afford one, I will. Until then, I want as many people as possible to read and play my games, so that I can afford one.
  12. I’m just using “indie” in a colloquial fashion to mean “small and primarily electronic”, and terminology purists can go swivel.

12 Responses to Tailoring RPGs to Smartphones

  1. Colin Fredericks says:

    You know, if there were something to create cookbook apps (both literally and figuratively), that might work well. Think about the format: it’s a picture with some text next to it, or a header with a little list of items and some text. Just insert art relevant to your game in place of the food photos, and write the game text so it fits in little recipe-sized chunks. I wonder if that’s out there already.

    I’ve seen “appmakr”, which looks mostly like an RSS feed aggregator, but it doesn’t seem like quite the right thing. Maybe it could be tweaked to work.

    • Stew says:

      A cookbook app! Of course. That’s what I was slowly getting towards when I described an app-creator-kit.

      Currently, cookbook apps are tailored towards being a frontend for a database of recipes, rather than being a framework that gets prepopulated to make a full app. But now that I’m thinking in that way, well, yeah. I may not have any free time whatsoever before the summer, but I might be able to come up with something…

      Appmakr looks like a way to use a smartphone app to access a website (such as the imdb or wikipedia apps). That could work well if the website is the product, but I don’t think it’s quite the right thing. Yet, anyway.

  2. Heron61 says:

    ePub is a brilliant format for the reader—but the limtations of the format (no embedded fonts, no character sheets, very limited set of reliable layout elements) mean that publishers don’t want to release in ePub alone.

    Jenna Moran visited me for a few days, just before the most recent edition of nobilis was released, and she talked about epub formatting. She had an idea for illos that clearly worked well, and that also might work for character sheets. The illos were all links – click on the link and you saw the illustration. This worked surprisingly well, and I don’t see any reason you couldn’t do the same thing with a jpg of a character sheet. Format it for 6 x 9, and you’d need to scroll a bit on most phones, but it should be readable in landscape format.

    • Stew says:

      I think that’s a very good idea indeed.

      What I think we (as an industry) could benefit from is a place where we hash out a few ways in which we can use reasonably-new things like ePub and (web)apps, and where we can flag up ideas like this for everyone to use. A “technical tips & tricks” for people who make the files. Most of the places I can think to start one would swiftly get flooded by people who a) think the industry should go back to ink-on-a-page or b) think the industry can afford more than we can for experts. Though that may be my natural cynicism shining through.

      Now if only more clients supported embedding fonts (and the software for making ePubs didn’t suck)…

  3. James says:

    I personally can’t fully get behind PDFs (or ePubs… or apps…) as RPG books. No matter how well they’re crafted, I feel like I can’t use them as a reference in the same way I can with a physical book. eBooks (which I love for novels) will never fully replace pBooks for me. (YMMV)

    • Stew says:

      MM certainly does V, because I want to create and publish RPGs, and the market for physical RPGs is not a healthy one. Electronic files allow me to do so in a way that just isn’t practical for deadtree. BLACK SEVEN, for instance, is a very short book, so it should be pretty cheap. Too cheap, as it turns out–if I go POD, I either make next-to-nothing on a copy or it’s too expensive for how long it is. If I went for a traditional print run I’d be sitting on hundreds of copies of a book that I couldn’t sell, because the market isn’t big enough.

    • James says:

      Not to seem like a jerk here, but how do other companies/individuals do it? There are examples of shortish games (I see that BLACK SEVEN is ~50 pages, Microscope weighs at 80…) that are (a) in print (b) seem (to me) to be selling “well enough”. Keeping in mind that a game like Microscope was completely unknown to me until I moved into the Seattle area, which is where the designer actually lives (I met the guy… once… at a Con. I owe him no allegiance, I’m not trying to push his game, just offering it up as an easy example of short book that the designer was able to get into print with seemingly few pains). Games like Fiasco seem to be doing ok, though that weighs in at roughly 3x the size of BLACK SEVEN. Shock is an indie RPG with a weird format, which can’t be cheap. Inspectres has been around for ages…

      Is the market becoming too saturated, and the games I’ve mentioned are riding primarily on their own success?

      Here’s my overall stance on pBooks vs eBooks in RPG-land. pBooks are easier to reference, easier to share (“pass around the table”, not “email to friends”), and less prone to weird technological *stuff* (if all I have is digital, and the battery dies, what then? (as the “easy” example)). I assure you, I’m a technophile. I love my eBooks… for novels.

      (hopefully I wasn’t insulting. I’m actually curious about all of this, and I have very little understand of how publishing works, despite having worked with books for a significant portion of my life)

    • Stew says:

      I wouldn’t say you’re being insulting; perhaps missing the point some. This post is predicated on the existence and emerging market of electronic publishing for RPGs in much the same way that a post about which single malt is the best is predicated on whisky being extant and available to purchase and drink.

      I know some people prefer trad books. Good. I produce some trad books. I understand the appeal. However, that’s not related to what Ed tweeted about. Moreover, every discussion that engages electronic means of distributing RPG books seems to have to include a tangent on why physical books are somehow “better” despite not having ctrl-F or laying flat when open or the ability to print certain pages without knackering the binding on a photocopier. Hence my snarky footnote on the matter. If I’m coming across as short, it’s just that I’ve read (and participated in) a lot of discussions that have ended up in the same place, debating the premise rather than the argument.

      Anyway. To answer your points:

      Electronic books are significantly easier to create than physical books. Write the book, do the layout, make the file, save the world. Done. Physical books require a different layout process (anyone who sends a PDF suitable for DTRPG straight to a PoD printer is an idiot), which doubles the amount of time spent on layout (or the amount that you pay your layout bod, if you’re richer than I am). They require cover art in order to sell (BLACK SEVEN has no art, as I’m the only person involved in production apart from my playtesters). They also require a means of notifying game stores about the book and getting the books out to them; Indie Press Revolution has taken a lot of the pressure out of that but only for gaming stores that pay attention to IPR. For the majority who don’t, your print book doesn’t exist.

      In order to get a good PoD book, it needs to be 80 pages or more in order to be perfect-bound. Less than that and you’re looking at saddle-stitched, which a) looks cheap, b) doesn’t last, c) is really expensive compared to perfect-bound. To give some comparative numbers, Æternal Legends is in print through Lulu, it’s ~150 pages, and its cost to me as a publisher with no mark-up whatsoever is less than half what it would be to produce BLACK SEVEN as a saddle-stitched sub-50-page book. By the time BLACK SEVEN makes as much on a print copy as it does on a PDF sale, I’d be charging more than I think it’s worth as a printed book.

      I’m a one-man-band. I write, I develop, I edit, I do layout. The only resource I have available for a new project is time (unless a prior project saw an upswing in sales). Therefore, the equation is “Will I see enough additional sales from print to justify the additional time needed, given that the additional time would include not just a one-off but an ongoing investment dedicated to distribution?”

      Everyone answers that to their own satisfaction. For some people, having a physical copy on sale is paramount. For others, myself included, it varies—but where the option’s there, I see far more electronic sales than physical.

      Example 1: For Æternal Legends, the answer was yes. When I get Spheres done as a supplement, I want to bundle a lot of the freebies that I’ve got up with some additional stuff into a print supplement and sell that alongside a PDF of Spheres, because I think that Æternal Legends works as both in print and electronically.

      Example 2: For BLACK SEVEN, the answer’s no. It’s not long enough. The electronic-only space has got enough traction that I don’t think it needs a print release. I couldn’t do a print version justice. And in the past couple of years, the number of physical bookstores has shrunk dramatically (I want to say 50% of gaming stores have closed in 3 years, but I don’t have a source for that). People buying games have gone online in response to the death of the LGS, and they’re more willing to buy electronic books rather than physical, even when the option’s for both is available.

      On your last paragraph: I find physical books harder to reference without ctrl-F equivalents. Where possible, I release my books as Creative Commons so one person can buy and share it with the rest of the group. And when I game, everyone present has at least two devices with cloud storage, so the idea of a dead battery putting the kybosh on a session is rather eight-years-ago. Gaming books done right should make use of more of the format’s advantages than novels do. The question behind this post is “how do we do that?”, not “should we do that?”

  4. James: Fiasco’s a breakout success. According to Alliance, it’s one of the five best selling games last year. The kind of numbers it sells will support a phenomenal print run. Most games, not so much.

  5. Jamie says:

    I often read RPGs on my phone, and I rely on the columns. Yes, it means scrolling up and down a lot, but more importantly it means not scrolling left and right for every single line. Plus I can zoom to a size where I can more comfortably read the text. Some of the best ones for this are the retro clones of OD&D and Basic, and stuff like Risus, but anything which I can read a line of text without having to scroll is good.

    Normally I prefer it when people produce a lightweight version of the PDF (often the “print” version), as it has fewer graphics and tends to not kill my phone.

    I don’t have any experience of ePub, but if it’s anything like zipped HTML, then it sounds like a pretty decent idea. HTML itself is a brilliant format, as the whole point of HTML is to present text on different devices! Yes, the graphics are a pain, but it’s much appreciated. There are currently a few major SRDs online, notably the d20, Pathfinder, and SotC SRDs — the first of which is the easiest to look at on my phone, but all are handy (not that I care much for FATE).

    • Stew says:

      My problem with columns in PDFs is that it usually goes hand in hand with horrible font sizes; it’s something that people do because they’re used to how books look in print, where two column small-text is a legible thing. The OSR books that I’ve looked at have better typography than average, which includes a larger font. Shame the content isn’t something I care for. You’re right that columns can be well-done in order to provide PDFs that read well on smartphones, but the issue again comes down to one of dpi as to what’s actually legible.

      ePub is zipped HTML with CSS, no javascript, some weird stuff. HTML is good, you don’t need to convince me of that. What annoys me about it is that readers are still trapped in the world of browsers circa 8 years ago: a couple of big-name browsers didn’t render table-tags at all sanely, and as for any kind of CSS trickery for embedding fonts (in order to do things like inline symbols and glyphs), only one rendering engine does so and that does it badly. And don’t get me started on images, bloody readers don’t understand the concept of an alpha channel for transparencies…

      As mentioned, the stuff I’ve produced for myself has ePubs included (Æternal Legends will get it with the mythical 2e). I mostly treat them as a textual reference, bundling them alognside a PDF that’s going to contain anything heavier than raw text. for things like character sheets and complex layout elements, but I do try my best to make things like tables and preformatted bits will degrade to a usable state. I think we’d see a major upswing in RPGs that use ePub if a) more readers adhered to one single version of the bloody spec, b) more tools output files that worked to that spec, and c) embedding fonts didn’t quickly end up in some difficult water with distribution rights. But until then, I do what I must because I can, for the good of all of us. 😉

  6. John says:

    Looking at the last ideas (mobile or web application), it seems like we’re rotating around the idea of creating a tabletop RPG and then shoehorning a mobile application around it. What about developing the game with the smartphone in mind from the beginning? Is there a way to create a collaborative, immersive RPG that leverages the features of a smartphone?

    Maybe you’d find that unpalatable, but that’s the only way I can think of to make the economics work out. It also opens up new possibilities for revenue (micropayments, subscriptions, content updates, content creation kits for GMs, embedded advertising).

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